Tuesday, July 10, 2012

How to do Disneyland: A tried and true survival guide for the ambivalent visitor

NOTE:  I discovered a draft of this post lying around in Blogger purgatory this weekend, and decided to unleash it, just in time for the summer amusement park season.  Due to the constantly changing wonderful world of Disney, it may be dated, but let me just say that the basic strategy outlined in this plan should still serve you well.  Or if not, at least you might get some good ideas for snacks out of it....   

There are people who loathe Disneyland. Anything with Mickey ears makes them apoplectic with rage.  If they were to run into Tinkerbell, they would squash her underfoot and brag about it*.

Seriously.  She should watch out.

On the other hand, there are people who adore Disneyland.  They plan their annual week-long vacations with glee, pay extra to dine with dwarves, and, if they live anywhere within driving distance, have their annual passes laminated when in use and framed when they expire**.

And then, there are people who enjoy Disneyland, but could happily go for many years without ever setting foot in the place again.

Me, for example.

Unfortunately, I am related to my sister.  Who emails me in July about whether I prefer to go December 20th or 21st.  And again in May to secure a place on the calendar for August***.  

Yes, that's twice a year. At Christmas and during the peak tourist travel month of the summer.  When everybody else on the planet is also visiting Disneyland.

This could be a nightmare.  At a minimum, it could be easily justify whatever the sisterly version of fratricide might be.  But instead of resentment, I'm filled with a mixture of awe and pride. Because we're not just good at going to Disneyland.

We're genius at going to Disneyland.

There are some trade offs to our method:

Add CARS to the "not gonna happen" side of this list.  It was still under construction when I first wrote this post.

This method will also not work well with toddlers, old people, autograph collectors, fairy-obsessed young girls, parade fans, or fans of the Enchanted Tiki Room.   If you have any of these in your family, give up and just check into the Disneyland Hotel and plan to stay a few days.  It's hopeless.  However, if you are unencumbered and ready for action, here's our tried and true survival guide to the Happiest Place on Earth:

1.  Get up at 6 am.  Drag kids out of bed. Buy a box of doughnuts and a large caffeinated drink.  Hit the road and enjoy a completely traffic-free drive on the empty freeways as the sun rises.  If you have done this right, you will arrive at the park with at least 30 minutes to spare before opening time, and will get rock star parking.

Unretouched photo of parking lot on our arrival.  This is from several years ago, but it pretty much works every time.

2.  Purchase a one day park hopper ticket.  This is expensive, but worth it.  Note that ticket agent is chipper and cheerful because you are among the first people she's seen today.

3.  Upon entering the park, take exactly one (1) character photo with Mickey, then proceed directly to Tomorrowland.   I would say skip the photo, but honestly, it's cruel to make kids walk by a giant stuffed mouse who wants a hug.   This is also probably the only time all day the guy will be actually looking for company.

I did not photoshop out the crowds. 

4.  FIRST WARNING! DO NOT BE PULLED INTO THE VORTEX OF NEMO!!!***** Go directly to Space Mountain.   Cackle with glee and high five each other as you walk straight into the space port.  By the time you emerge, wait time will be twice what it was when you entered.    Get used to this feeling.

5.  Your next stop will be Star Tours, which may have a wait, but is worth it because the new Star Wars adventure is super cool.   Proceed from there to Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, where you will once again stroll onto the ride in under 15 minutes.   NEXT WARNING!  DO NOT BE TEMPTED TO RIDE THE ROCKETS!  This line is deceptively short looking but will absolutely kill the momentum you have built up at this point.   If all goes well, you will have been in Disneyland for approximately one hour and will be on your way out of Tomorrowland with three of the best rides in the park under your belt.  If your children ask to do Autopia, offer to let them drive on the way home instead. There is potential for a Pixie Hollow derailment here as well.  Be alert, and you should be OK.

6. If they are running, now is the time for the Matterhorn Bobsleds.  If not, it's on to Adventureland and New Orleans Square!  Indiana Jones awaits, but you do not, as you are well ahead of the crowds surging toward the rides you just left.  If the wait is any longer than 20 minutes, use the fabulous "single rider" method for this one******.  

7.  As a Disney purist, you will of course want to do Pirates and the Haunted Mansion.  Go for it!  There's no wait for either right now. Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!

8. Snack Break! Treat your group to a six pack of piping hot, made to order, Mickey-shaped beignets, covered in powdered sugar, from the Mint Julep Bar.  They also have lattes.  Just sayin', this place is a FIND. Or, if you are a healthier sort, pick up some fresh pineapple spears from the stand across from the Jungle Cruise.  Absolutely fabulous on a hot day.

9.  Splash Mountain is right down the road, and the wait to be soaked should be just long enough for you to finish your snack.  Pooh and friends are nestled into this area, too.  You can usually go around twice on the Winnie the Pooh ride here without much trouble, and take a photo with Eyeore to try and cheer him up. NOTE:  This is your Fantasyland substitute stop!  Get it out of your system now!

Note dripping hair and tell-tale water marks on my shirt .  BTW, don't buy the cookies at this general store.  They look good, but are not worth the calories.

10.  The lines are now getting a little longer, but that is OK.  You will be leaving soon!  Stop by the Jungle Cruise and Big Thunder Mountain, then visit the world's cleanest petting zoo*******.  It's nearly noon, and you have one final stop to make.

11. MAJOR WARNING! You will now be entering Fantasyland, the ultimate VORTEX OF DOOM.  DANGER! DANGER! DANGER!  Dumbo alone could cost you an entire afternoon and your sanity, and don't get me started on the ridiculous cult of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.  Honestly, I just don't get it.   Think of this entire area like Jail in Monopoly.  You are only passing through, JUST VISITING.  Eyes front, kids leashed and bribed, for God's sake, just keep moving!

12.  Finish up your time at Disneyland with It's a Small World.  It's vintage, it's relaxing, it's infectious, and it's got incredible throughput, so even if there is a line it will move quickly. The clock should be striking noon as you leave so enjoy that, and move out.   Singing aloud and laughing, exit the park, getting a hand stamp if you like.

This is one ride that's extra great at Christmas time

13.  Cross the plaza and enter California Adventure.  The place is a zoo right now with the opening of the new Carsland, which was not yet open on our last trip.  My bet is that this is another Nemo situation (run away! run away! Brave Sir Robin ran away!).   Gone is the Mission Tortilla Factory tour, with the hot free samples at the end, and the incredible milkshakes from the San Andreas stand.  Foodies of the world, a moment of silence for what has been lost.   Fortunately for you, the sourdough bread tour is still in full swing, and Corn Dog Castle is open for business.   Not only is the meal here one of the better deals in the park ($5.99 for a corn dog and chips or apple slices), but the corn dogs are THE BEST!   On your way from the park entrance to lunch, pick up your first Fast Passes of the day, for Grizzly River Run.

14.  On the Boardwalk! After your corn dog fest, head over to California Screamin'.  The wait time may be 25-30 minutes, but you have your Single Rider option.  NOTE: If you have young kids with you, use "child swap" (another fantastic invention!)  Your whole party goes through the line, then tell the attendant you are doing a child swap.  One adult stays with the young child while the others ride.  Then, when the ride comes back, the adult who waited gets to go right away!  This works on ANY RIDE.   You may be tempted by the crowds and excitement over by Midway Mania.  DON'T GIVE IN. Keep moving.  Hopefully your Fast Pass time slot for Grizzly River Run is just about now, so this may give you cover with the group to skip it.  The rest of the rides in this area are all optional in our book, especially that giant Mickey ferris wheel.  You will be sick if you get in one of the cars that flips around.  Just sayin'.  The swings are fun, though, and the Ariel ride is worth doing if the line is less than 20 minutes, which it should be for you.

15. After getting thoroughly wet and laughing your head off on Grizzly River  Run (one of the highlights of the day, especially if it's hot), go right across the way to the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail.  Chip N Dale will probably be hanging out in front, and the trail is awesome.  Towers to climb, rope bridges, and some cool zip lines for younger kids in the back.   Given how much of the day is spent waiting and riding and waiting, having the chance to run around, jump, and play here is just the thing.  While the crew is letting off steam, send one person over to pick up Fast Passes for Soaring Over California.  That'll be your final ride of the day.

16.  Hug Chip N' Dale, then make your way to the Hollywood Back Lot.  Do MuppetVison3D, and Monsters, Inc. (Both highly recommended), then get ready for the ultimate thrill ride, Hollywood Tower of Terror.  THE BEST!  Suitable for brave kids 7 and up, and you can use child swap if you have someone who doesn't want to go.  Single Rider your way to the top, and enjoy!  It should now be just before dinner time, so treat the group to a cold drink and give yourselves a high five.  You are almost there!

17.  Trot on through the Fast Pass line at Soaring Over California. Relax as you sail over the ocean, feel  and smell the slightly stale fake breeze on your cheeks, and let the stress of the day fall away under Patrick Walburton's soothing narration.  Exit, and don't bother with a hand stamp.  You're done!!

18. On your way to the trams, steel yourself to avoid the final pitfall of the day:  THE DISNEY STORE. You do not need ANYTHING to take home. (Except perhaps some kettle corn from the vendor by the trams.  That stuff is good.)  It is a pit of frustration and horror that will bring new meaning to the words, "Harsh my buzz".  Even we, the professionals, have had many excellent days ruined by the gift shop********, so I know what I am talking about.   Instead, as the sun sets, pity the masses of people just arriving at the park, step on and sigh with relief.

Under no circumstances should you enter here, even if the Mickey potholders are super cute.

19. Your crew will be hungry for dinner, so drive through the In N' Out burger on Harbor Blvd. in Fullerton, 3 miles up the 5.

Note that prices start with the digit, "1".  Feed the whole car for the price of a crappy burger meal at the park.

20. Arrive home.  Pour the adults in the group a large cocktail, and give a toast to the Happiest Place on Earth!

How do you do Disneyland?
Since, you know, we'll probably be going again soon.

* I feel a little sorry for these people, because they will be burning in Hell.  A Hell filled with smiling dolls from many nations singing cheerfully as they burn.
** There are also people whose obsession with Disneyland is clearly freakish and unnatural (Grown up pin-traders, I am talking to you), but these are outliers and won't be discussed here.
*** To be fair, it's not just Disneyland.  She's like this about pretty much everything.  The woman gets up in the morning and makes a detailed plan.  Then she emails people about the plan, gives them several options, outlines pros and cons of various alternatives, cites relevant source material, and requests a response so she can firm up her schedule as soon as possible.
**** I could charge you seven dollars for this information. But I won't. I may be able to get you through the place in one piece, but I can't do a thing about the price tag.
*****You could watch the movie twice in the time it will take you to get through this ride.  This is the first of many traps must be avoided at all costs.
****** Have each member of your party ask the attendant for a single rider pass, and be directed straight onto the ride.  Chances are you will still go together, or pretty close to it.   Little known fact:  Almost any ride that has FastPass also has the single rider shortcut.  No dispensing machines, no time slots, no waiting!
******* Did you know there was a petting zoo at Disneyland?  There is.  With the happiest goats on earth.  And at Christmas time, reindeer!
******** My sister's fault.  She falls for it every time!


  1. Oh holy cow! I can't thank you enough for posting this. My family has planned a reunion at DL over the four day Thanksgiving weekend this year. (Ugh.) As much as I love DL, I am NOT looking forward to the crowded hell it is destined to be. I've been trying to find a cheat sheet online to help us navigate our way through without spending 12 hours a day standing in line. I'm SO stealing your tips! :-)

    1. You are so welcome! I hope some of our Disney luck works for you. Have a wonderful (and hopefully sane) Thanksgiving. Would love to know how things work out...

  2. Great post! Alas, I have a fairy-loving daughter, who might prevent me from doing something similar. Curious if you have any updated advice for your most recent visits to Disneyland?

    1. Hi! We went back last year just before Carsland opened, and this method still worked like a charm. It's pretty tried and true. My niece was a fairy girl, too, and IF you can convince your daughter to see one of the other members of the court, and not hold out for Tinkerbell, you can possibly squeeze that in. I'd send one family member into Pixie Hollow to wait in line right after you do Space Mountain. You might encounter more crowds by the time you get to Adventureland, but it should still be workable. Good luck!